The Real Cost of Bottled Water in India
The use-and-throw water bottle has become the flagship symbol of our obsession with convenience at the cost of common sense. Bottled water is thousands of times more expensive than tap water, wrecks havoc on a variety of natural ecosystems, and is not even the safest choice. So why is this kind of common sense so uncommon?
A tremendous amount of energy goes into the extraction, processing, transport and packaging of bottled water. The journey of the water starts most commonly from an underground source. Aquifers are ancient reserves of water that supply water to our bore wells, open wells, lakes and some rivers. The rain that is soaked into the ground recharges these massive reserves every year. It is a case of simple logic that if we extract more of this water than is recharged every year, it will go on depleting the reserve.
This is precisely what has been happening over the past few decades in various aquifers in India and all over the world. The level of groundwater has been declining at an alarming rate. At the forefront of this extraction are large multinational companies selling products that we could all easily live without – carbonated drinks and bottled water.
Researchers at the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in Mumbai analysed 8 brands of bottled water to find out how much energy and water is needed to make ONE litre of bottled water. They found that a lot more water is used up to produce that one litre bottle – about 17 litres to be precise. Out of this, only 1L is in the bottle to drink! The rest of the 16 litres is used indirectly.
We don’t realize that electrical power generation guzzles up tons and tons of water. This is the same energy that powers bottling factories. A lot of water is used up while filtering and purifying the water inside the bottling plants. Finally, production of the PET bottle itself takes up the major chunk of the additional water consumption. Such an analysis of the impact of a certain commodity in terms of water is called the water footprint.
An interesting observation is that the bottling industries very cunningly twist facts and words to show they have a miniscule, even a negative water footprint – which is to say that they actually recharge more water into aquifers via rainwater harvesting and other methods, than how much they take out! How then, should we as consumers find out what is right?
Pay attention to the language: Water Footprint and Life Cycle Assessment are inclusive terms that take into account all the water used – directly and indirectly. These words are often used by independent researchers. Industry reports take into account only a fraction of the water use by using terms like total water use, or positive water balance. This gives values as low as 1.7 litres per one litre bottle, i.e., 10 times less than the actual !
Look at the Long term trends and industry-independent sources: Groundwater tables have been declining sharply in all areas where there is water extraction by water intensive industries. If these people actually were doing things like rainwater harvesting to give back more than they take, it would show in independent private and government studies of groundwater.
Every time we buy a bottle of water, we create demand for this completely unnecessary industry to exist. The sense of responsibility must start from here. Physically buying the bottle means we take part in a long process that started thousands of years before we were born and ends thousands of years after we are gone. All for a few minutes of convenience.
The best and most important place to fight the exploitation of water by these industries is at home. A simple reminder to fill a refillable water bottle every time we go out is our most powerful tool. Such unnecessary products thrive on demand by the general public, which is a result of nothing but a lack of discipline on our side.
There is no technology that can guarantee sustainable use of water or any other resource, if we choose to be lazy and passive. Seen in another way, we need no additional technology to make sustainability possible if only we discipline ourselves.